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Wildfire thinning proposal at Oregon Capitol appears to have bleak future

by Damian Mann, Medford Mail-Tribune |

SALEM, Ore. – A $6.8-million proposal to help prevent wildfires may go up in legislative flames, undercutting Southern Oregon’s hopes for extra relief from its summers of smoke.

“It’s not looking good,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, about the legislation she proposed.

Marsh said she’ll have a better idea later this week as the Legislature deals with one of its roughest sessions in recent memory, battered by walkouts by Republican senators angered over the cap-and-trade bill and an education bill.

“It’s a madhouse,” Marsh said. “We’re trying to carry on here.”

Marsh said the legislation, part of a forest resiliency bill, would have provided additional funding for prevention efforts to thin forests around communities in Southern Oregon — prompted in part by the catastrophic wildfire that destroyed Paradise, Calif., last fall.

“We have to put our resources into prevention, and we have to get out of this cycle of suppression costs,” Marsh said.

Likewise, a proposal by freshman Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, to develop a program to employ students who want to pay down their student debt to thin forests with isn’t looking good either.

Both Golden’s and Marsh’s proposals are part of the Forest Fire and Resilience Investment Package that is still stuck in committee, though legislators hope to revive it if the Legislature can get back in session after Republican senators last week staged their second walk out.

Republicans were a no-show Sunday, and the Legislature adjourned because of a lack of quorum.

Golden said the Legislature has ignored other legislative efforts to improve the environment of the state, including bills that have passed in other states to ban the use of toxic chemicals such as those that kill off pollinator insects.

“We’ve gone from the Northwest’s greenest state to the Northwest’s brownest state for environmental policy,” he said. “I think it speaks to the continued power of special-interest money.”

One bright note in lessening the power of special-interest money is a campaign finance legislation that would require greater disclosure for committees.

“Instead of the ‘Happy Oregonians Committee’ you would be know who the person behind the committee really is,” Golden said.

While the chances of the legislation moving forward looked good, the Senate hasn’t taken a vote on it yet. The bill would basically ask voters if they want to make campaign donation limits part of the Oregon Constitution.

Golden said he was proud of housing legislation that could help thousands of Oregonians.

Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said she’s baffled that the governor and Legislature don’t want to support thinning projects and prevent wildfires that pump tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

“It’s just utterly remarkable to me,” she said. “They do not make the carbon argument about the fires.”

Despite the setback, Wallan said she worked with Marsh to prevent a bill that would have damaged the Southern Oregon wine industry that was being pushed by Willamette Valley vineyards. Senate Bill 111 would have added extra regulatory hurdles for grapes heading out of state

“From my point of view, that was a success,” she said.

But the efforts to get more help for wildfires hasn’t materialized, even though it has bipartisan support, she said

“There is not enough of us in Southern Oregon to have a voice,” Wallan said.

Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, is one of 11 senators who have staged a walkout to protest cap-and-trade legislation and what he perceives as Democratic overreach.

Baertschiger said Republicans want the proposal, aimed at lowering the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, to be sent to the voters for approval.

Baertschiger said residents of rural Oregon protested in front of the Capitol, and Republicans attempted to reach a compromise with Democrats, but the discussions fell apart.

Despite the walkout, Baertschiger said there have been accomplishments this session, including legislative efforts to get a handle on the Oregon Health Plan.

“We’re inching forward on that,” he said.

Baertschiger said the Legislature appears to better understand that cutting trees isn’t a bad thing, that it both benefits the state’s economy and helps thin overgrown forests.